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Intercultural Dialogue For A Successful Interfaith Dialogue – Analysis

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Religions and cultures cannot fall into the trap set for them by hegemonic powers. They cannot continue to be sources of conflict among themselves or to legitimize the misleading clash of interests of the major powers. The alternative to the clash of civilizations, to the conflict between cultures, to the war of religions and to ethnic clashes is political, intercultural, intra-religious dialogue, inter-religious and interdisciplinary and the work for peace, which today must become the categorical imperative of the different cosmovisions, by which I mean the philosophical, moral, cultural, religious and spiritual traditions of humanity, if they don’t want to antagonize, ignore, or worse, destroy each other. And this for a series of anthropological, epistemological, philosophical, political, intercultural and religious reasons that I expose at continuation.

The Necessity Of Intercultural Dialogue

Dialogue is part of the structure of the human being. This one, rather than a wolf to his fellow man, is a social being, and sociability involves spaces of communication, meeting places, and places for dialogue. In this sense, the lack of communication, the misfortune and the monologue are the most important denial and the enemy of sociability, and they turn humans into lone wolves, worse, a destroyer of himself. The existence of the human being cannot be understood without reference to the other, others to contact and communicate with.

Dialogue is, also, part of the structure of knowledge and rationality. Reason is dialogical, not autistic ; it is intersubjective, not purely subjective. Autism constitutes one of the pathologies of epistemology. No one can say that he possesses the truth exclusively and in its totality.

Dialogue is one of the essential keys to hermeneutics. It is the door that introduces us to the understanding of events and texts of other cultural and religious traditions or of past events and texts of our own tradition.

Dialogue is an alternative to fundamentalism be it cultural, religious or ethnic. It is an antidote to the ideology of “clash” or confrontation between cultures and religions and to any totalitarian threat.

The history of religions is conducive to dialogue, it shows the symbolic richness of humanity and the plurality of manifestations of the sacred, the divine, the mystery in human history, the diversity of messages and messengers not always agree and sometimes disagree and the multiple and different responses to multiple questions about the origin and the future of the cosmos and humanity, on the meaning and the nonsense of life and of death. Uniformity constitutes an impoverishment of the religious world.

Interculturality, also, advocates interreligious dialogue. No culture or religion can consider itself in unique possession of the truth as whether it was private property received emboldened or through a mercantile operation. As well as no religion or culture alone does not hold the response to the problems of mankind or the exclusive liberating force to fight against oppression. The truth, the answer to human problems and liberation are present in all religions and cultures, albeit mixed with epistemological deviations and pathologies.

Intra-religious and inter-religious dialogue is an ethical imperative for the survival of humanity, world peace and the fight against poverty. Some 5.5 billion human beings are linked to a religious and spiritual tradition. And if they set themselves on a war footing, the world will become a towering inferno with total destructive capacity.

The search for the truth is the great task and the great challenge of interreligious and intercultural dialogue. And this in the knowledge that we will never be able to possess it completely and that we will only be able to come closer to it. All religions are human responses to the divine reality that is being manifested through different faces. Of all of them, they form a unitary pluralism, while each has a complementary singularity open to the others.

Dialogue is not about winning and beating, or convincing and forcing the caller to change his or her mind, but looking for elements of encounter from different cultural and religious positions. The scene of the dialogue can provide a process of mutual learning from each other.

Dialogue must be: inclusive of all cultures, ethnic groups, civilizations, spiritualities and religions in the face of the widespread tendency to exclude minority and ancestral religious, cultural and spiritual traditions because they are considered backward and insignificant. For this reason, one must avoid the hierarchy between developed and underdeveloped cultures, major religions and minority religions, which gives a hegemonic role to the major religions and a second fiddle role to the minority religions, and put back into question the legitimization that the great religions provide for hegemonic powers.

Intercultural dialogue requires alliance in the fight against poverty and inequality. The dialogue of cultures without dialogue of religions is ineffective, since only few cultures do not originate from religions. Dialogue between religions without dialogue between cultures is an endogamic operation. Dialogue, all dialogue, without a fight for justice, is empty. The alternative to the fundamentalists must be a radical dialogue, that is to say, a dialogue that addresses the root of the problems and that revolves around the most dramatic aggressions suffered by humanity and the earth. A dialogue between knowledge and flavours, experiences and sufferings, beliefs, unbeliefs and disbeliefs, thoughts and feelings, plural ethics and aesthetics, original peoples and peoples with more recent history, knowledge and ignorance, experiences and inexperiences.

Historically, the advent of modern states, which dates back to the 16th century, coincided with the attribution to the state of the management of cultural differences and religious conflicts. It is a state that is supposed to develop mechanisms for mediating and reconciling the differences that proliferate within it, including religious differences. Since then, the compatibility of such differences has ceased to be a matter for religions and has been dealt with in the civil and political spheres, just as wars and the implementation of strategies for the peaceful coexistence of states among themselves and of the various social groups within each state have since been dealt with in the civil and political spheres.

It is certain that the politico-cultural climate in which we have been living for some years now is dominated by particularisms. On the one hand, these rehabilitate cultural affiliations and specificities, but on the other hand they remain vulnerable to the idea of an “inevitable clash of civilizations” (Huntington, 2000). Such an idea, reinforced by the presence of religious fundamentalisms of all kinds, risks de facto delegitimizing any theory of equality in principle and possible compatibility between differences. There is a sense that we have moved from the ethnocentric universalism that has dominated modernity to the almost “ontological” particularism of differences that is characteristic of postmodernity. By this term, we mean a historical-cultural situation characterized, at all levels, by the simultaneous cohabitation, paradoxically necessary and impossible at the same time, of multiple diversities within a “post-national constellation” (Habermas, 2009). 

In such a context act in concert : economic-financial globalization and local politics; unlimited communications and routine behavioral patterns; universal expansion of technology and socio-political particularism; defence of civil values of general interest and nationalist and regional patriotism; universalism of the rules of the social contract and its selfish applications; inclusive perspective of open societies and identity-based membership. Such a contradiction between, on the one hand, the explosion of cultural differences, claimed on the basis of various criteria of belonging (gender, race, religion, culture, etc.) ; and on the other hand, an increasingly aggressive globalization (economic, technological and communicational), calls for a new perspective in the study of the relationship between equality and difference.

What Is Interfaith Dialogue?

Interfaith dialogue is not a dialogue between religions or institutions, but between people who belong to different religions and recognize their equal human dignity. Dialogue is an encounter that becomes a fruitful endeavor where there is mutual respect and listening, and which involves existential issues. It is neither a negotiation on the content of faith, nor a debate in which one would seek to score points, nor an attempt to convert the other. It is a profound attitude, marked by the desire to meet the other in his or her difference; for a Christian, it is rooted in the faith that God Himself has taken the initiative of dialogue with humanity. For a Muslim dialogue is synonymous of peace and respect.

Interreligious dialogue is an issue for our world today. We live in a divided and fragmented world, where it becomes urgent, in order to resist violence, to rediscover what makes our common humanity, whatever our ethnic origin or religious affiliation. To serve the unity of humanity, which Christians and Muslims believe has its source in the Word of God, is the vocation and mission of all the faithful. Inter-religious dialogue is one form of this service to humanity. It is therefore a question of working towards a fraternal living-together, where everyone can have his or her place.

This goes through very concrete attitudes: 

  • The way of speaking about the other ;
  • The concern to go beyond amalgams and stereotypes ;
  • As well as the desire to deepen one’s own faith and the resources that it gives for an encounter with the other in truth. 

In The Joy of the Gospel, Pope Francis speaks of interreligious dialogue as part of “social dialogue as a contribution to peace» !

How can we be actors of interreligious dialogue ?

  • By being men and women of relationships;
  • By taking an interest in the other, in what gives meaning to one’s life;
  • By taking seriously the religious dimension of the cultures of the world: openness to “greater than ourselves”, which can give breath and hope to our lives;
  • By knowing how to listen… and also how to speak; and
  • By witnessing that God has « come », indirectly, to join us in all the dimensions of our humanity, to teach us to become more human.

Why Do We Need Interfaith Dialogue?

Society is marked by profound changes in its religious landscape. Through neighbourhood relations, school, professional work, participation in the life of associations, as well as at the highest political levels, believers find themselves led to meet other believers – Christian, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists… Whether they like it or not, they live more and more in situations that are both intercultural and interreligious. This is a de facto situation. At the same time, it is an opportunity to reflect on the foundations and objectives of interreligious dialogue.

Such a reflection is all the more necessary since many believers today, no longer, perceive – or do not yet perceive – the importance of interreligious dialogue, and often even express real fears about it. These fears do not emanate only from traditionalist currents; they are also expressed by religious people who do not belong to such currents and who, in good faith, stress the risks or even dangers of interreligious dialogue for humanity.

These reactions can be explained in particular by the rise of Islam in Europe; even if it is pointed out that Islamism must be clearly distinguished from Islam and that it represents only a radical and extreme trend, some are afraid that too much openness to Muslims in France or Europe will pay off in the medium or long term. Don’t these Muslims, they object, take advantage of the welcome given to them to become more and more established, to the point that this establishment could one day threaten societies with Christian inspiration and values?

The fears mentioned above can also be explained by forms of relativism that have gained ground in recent decades : at a time of cultural and religious intermingling, in the age of globalization, some fear that the Catholic Church’s commitment to interreligious dialogue, however well intentioned, could contribute to confusion and could ultimately maintain the idea that “all religions are equal”.

In this situation, it is important to dispel a number of misunderstandings. On the one hand, it is not religions that dialogue with each other, but believers. On the other hand, dialogue does not necessarily mean “understanding” or “agreement” ; in any case, it implies that each person can affirm what he or she believes – provided that it is with respect for others – and, while it does not aim to convert others, it does not dispense with the proclamation of the Gospel. But it is also important to say what, positively, makes such a dialogue legitimate and even necessary. 

If Christians recognize in Jesus Christ the fullness of Revelation, they believe at the same time that God makes himself present to every person and wishes to communicate his life to them ; they know with the Apostle Peter that “God is no respecter of persons, but whoever fears him and works righteousness in every nation will find acceptance with him” (Acts 10:35); they cannot therefore be indifferent to other believers and should rather, as far as possible, enter into a relationship with them.

Dialogue Is Never Self-Evident

Indeed, the future of every person depends on his or her ability to express (through language or any other symbolic activity) his or her deepest experiences and to share them with his or her fellow human beings. Two people who love each other, for example, but who cannot find the means to tell each other, risk seeing their love wither away. This principle applies to all human experiences, including the often very vague experience of a presence beyond the human being.

Experience also teaches us that dialogue is never self-evident, and is often even contradicted, in fact, by the phenomenon of violence. It is important to be aware of this if we are to avoid a naïve view of reality. However, the very trial of violence cannot be used as an alibi to close one’s mind to the demand for dialogue ; rather, it gives an additional reason to choose dialogue, recognizing that it is already, as such, a form of victory over violence.

When a person somehow experiences a presence that is beyond him or her, he or she is more or less aware of the meaning of that experience. Depending on the situation in which he finds himself (his cultural, social, religious background…), his awareness of this presence will be different. The Japanese of the old times will not have the same perception as a Frenchman of today, an Egyptian of four millennia ago, or an Indian of the nineteenth century… In any case, religions testify to the effort that men of every age and culture make to express, in society, their experience of God or the Absolute. This in itself provides material for forms of dialogue which help believers to live together and share, in mutual respect, the best of what is in them.

Bitter Frustrations Of Dialogue

Institutional dialogue

Its interlocutors are representatives of religions (or non-religious convictions), who speak on behalf of people who share their convictions. It is a political and diplomatic dialogue, in the noble sense of these terms, the aim of which is not to agree or even discuss the content of beliefs, but to produce a symbolic effect, within and outside the communities represented. When Pope Francis met the shaykh Aḥmad al-Ṭayyib, everyone had a symbolic message to convey. For example, when the two men met in Cairo in April 2017, the Pope wanted to convey the message that Muslims and Christians are together in the face of barbarism, and that there is no war of religions between them. As for the shaykh, he wanted first to affirm his spiritual authority among Muslims around the world, presenting himself as the “pope of Islam” and then he conveyed the message of peace and coexistence to the believers worldwide.

This institutional dialogue has no content other than its symbolic scope and a great deal of frustration arises from the fact that some unsuspecting observers expect it to lead to “advances” in doctrinal or ethical terms. This is exactly the impression one can get when reading the Joint Declaration, signed by Pope Francis and the shaykh Aḥmad al-Ṭayyib in Abu Dhabi in February 2019. Symbolically, it is very important that the text exists, it is the first time that a document is signed jointly by both authorities. But in terms of content, it is extremely frustrating, even scandalous: declaring that religions never incite violence is a declaration of principle that has been cruelly contradicted, for Islam and Christianity, for centuries. Similarly, to reduce religion to a call to a fraternal humanity is appallingly poor on the dogmatic level. The only thing to be retained (or almost) from this text is its existence, the extremely powerful and effective symbol that a word is possible, even if, in terms of content, it is rather hollow today.

You have probably already experienced the same frustration in meetings where an imam, a priest and a rabbi are brought in and absolutely nothing happens. What is said is a distressing platitude. People ask these meetings for what they can’t offer ! If the guests are there, it is not because they have something to say but because they represent something. Symbolically, they represent Muslims, Christians, Jews… It is a strong, necessary, beautiful image, but it is only an image. Religious dignitaries are very far from having anything relevant to say about their own religious tradition!

Academic dialogue

Its interlocutors are theologians, i.e. persons who have both a believing and a scientific approach to their faith, which they analyze with the tools of the human sciences : philosophy, hermeneutics, history, anthropology, sociology, psychology… (Let us note in passing that it would be abusive to qualify as interreligious the work of researchers in religious sciences, i.e. persons who do not have a believing approach to their object of study). 

The aim of academic interreligious dialogue is to make explicit and discuss the faith of the theological interlocutors in rational categories common to them, or at least to make explicit the different rationalities at work in the discussions between them.

Unlike the previous type of dialogue, scholars are not there to speak on behalf of the people who share their beliefs, but for their academic expertise. The purpose of this dialogue is not to agree on the faith of the other, but rather to understand what distinguishes us and how each belief finds its internal coherence. 

When theologians meet, the dominant symbolic dimension of the institutional dialogue cannot be denied and it must always be remembered that no one here “represents” his or her religion. This is a main difference with the previous type of interreligious dialogue. The Muslim theologian does not “represent” Muslim thought, but a Muslim thought, his own. The same applies to the Reformed theologian, whether Jewish or Catholic.

I also know from experience that this type of dialogue is much more interesting when the interlocutors have some knowledge of the other’s religion. I have attended infuriating sessions between Muslim and Christian theologians where most of the misunderstandings could have been avoided if the speakers knew only clichés about the other. This is precisely related to the fact that the dialogue is between intellectuals from specialized fields. 

If I put academics from different fields of expertise around the table, I have no guarantee that the discussion will be fruitful. The most interesting meetings I have attended have been between Muslim theologians and Christian Islamists. And once I attended a meeting between Catholic theologians and a Muslim Christianologist. It was fascinating. Added to this requirement is the difficulty of translations… 

Dialogue Is A Must Today

Religions have historically been sources of conflict, sometimes bloody wars. However, they have always been, also, a source of hope, creativity and deep meaning. Indeed, religions can and should play a key role in defining our common goals:

  • The prospect of a future free of fear;
  • Peaceful progress for the good of all; and
  • The defence of human values against violence, hatred and discrimination.

In particular, religions must bring all the peoples of the world closer together today. They must lead them towards ever closer cooperation in the fight against injustice and poverty.

It is worth recalling that the three monotheistic religions – and they are not the only ones – have a common basis : mercy, i.e. love of neighbor and the precepts resulting from it. It is from these principles that modern societies are inspired in their search for the principles of collective and structured solidarity. Solidarity can be consolidated within a society only if it is welded together with greater solidarity.

In the dialogue between peoples, the equality of principle between cultures and the right of each to full respect for its characteristics is affirmed. However, respect for the other does not mean automatic acceptance of any cultural practice, especially when it is distinct from the reasons on which it is based. The principle of equality between cultures is meaningful only if it implies the right of every human being to physical integrity, respect for basic rights and freedom of conscience. These are things that do not make people happier, but make us individuals.

The dialogue between cultures and creeds must not promote the levelling of the world on Western values or on an absolute concept of economic individualism. 

Open dialogue and respect for others as equal interlocutors, like all higher values, is a goal that is built day by day in a never-ending work. But we must not stop working in the right direction.

Human civilizations obviously have an infinite range of original and particular characteristics. Civilization encompasses the cultural and scientific, philosophical and spiritual, economic, political and social, educational, environmental and other spheres.

However, dialogue between cultures and creeds is not and must not be merely an instrument of political dialogue in the strict sense of the term, as a veritable arm wrestling for short-term interests, nor its substitute. This would be counterproductive for both political dialogue and intercultural dialogue. On the other hand, it is true that if this dialogue of cultures and creeds is deeply rooted in the heart of civil societies, it can prepare the ground for a peaceful and fruitful political dialogue.

You can follow Professor Mohamed CHTATOU on Twitter : @Ayurinu

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Dr. Mohamed Chtatou

Dr. Mohamed Chtatou

Dr. Mohamed Chtatou is a Professor of education science at the university in Rabat. He is currently a political analyst with Moroccan, Gulf, French, Italian and British media on politics and culture in the Middle East, Islam and Islamism as well as terrorism. He is, also, a specialist on political Islam in the MENA region with interest in the roots of terrorism and religious extremism.

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